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Newt Gingrich leaves Mitt Romney in a South Carolina swamp

“Another One Bites the Dust” was the song pounding through the Hilton ballroom when I showed up to hear what Newt Gingrich would say to the jubilant jam of conservatives celebrating his game-changing triumph in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary.

In this case, it is Mitt Romney who is chewing on the dust.

When I flew in here a week ago, Romney was claiming wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and held a big lead in this state. Conventional wisdom said a South Carolina victory would nail the nomination for the former Massachusetts governor. But this is a campaign season in which the only conventional wisdom that makes sense is the observation that anything can happen.

When the night’s winner took the stage, he praised his opponents. Rick Santorum, Gingrich said, had been an important voice raising alarm about the danger of a nuclear Iran. Ron Paul, he said, had been right on issues of money and the Federal Reserve for 25 years. Of Romney, Gingrich said he was a hardworking American and had done a good job with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City -- gracious, I suppose, but rather faint praise.

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I feel a bit sorry for Romney. He has carried the legacy of his father’s failure to win the presidency for a long time. Only days ago, it looked as if the road to the nomination was wide open. Now, it’s going to be a long slog, and he already looks weary.

Romney reminds me of George H. W. Bush – a decent, gracious man of means who simply cannot fake a common touch or exude the kind of visceral toughness that right wing Republicans demand of their leaders. Gingrich is an unlikely tough guy; a portly policy wonk who has rarely seen the inside of a gym and studiously evaded military service. But everyone knows he’s Rambo when it comes to political infighting. Even his ethical lapses and callous treatment of past wives reveal a ruthlessness that hard-line conservatives are looking for this year.

At the Gingrich victory party, I talked at length with a local hospital chaplain named Ed Cheek. He was a gregarious guy with no trace of resentment toward his candidate’s favorite punching bag, the elite media. Cheek was almost literally jumping for joy because he believes Gingrich is the one man who can turn America back from its dangerous slide toward secularism and economic ruin. This chaplain discounted Gingrich’s character failings as a thing of the past. This is Gingrich’s moment, Cheek told me, and this flawed but brilliant man has the ideas, debating skills and political toughness needed to beat Barack Obama and bring fundamental change to Washington.

Romney? Ed Cheek said he’s a good man, but he just might wither under the onslaught of the Obama campaign machine. Apparently, a lot of South Carolina Republicans felt the same way and, in the last few days, they swung to Gingrich.

Romney now limps on to Florida having lost the final count in Iowa to Rick Santorum and losing decisively to Gingrich here. The campaign has been blown wide open. It looks as if it will go on, week after week, state after state, with final resolution far off down the campaign trail.

At least that’s today’s conventional wisdom.

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